L’Ormindo – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, February 25th 2015

This was my second attempt to go to the show, having had to return a ticket for last year’s run. I am glad I finally got to go.

(Preamble. To skip to the review proper, scroll down a bit.)

Firstly, I must enthuse about the Wanamaker Playhouse itself. To enter it is to enter something like another world. No other space I know works a magic like it. One almost leaves behind cares: one forgets all burden of modernity, the noise and rush of every day life.

What a jewel, and a treasure of a venue, and what a fine addition to London’s theatrical and musical venues. Oak and candlelight equals an atmosphere not so much electric, as hushed and intimate. This is a space which thrives on “nearness” and the rules of playing at the Globe – to play to one person at a time, to pick a crowd member and appeal, to make eye contact – apply here as well.  As the saying goes, if you build it, they will come, and well, audiences want to come to it so much that each night of L’Ormindo is sold out despite tickets being rather highly priced. Brave of the Globe to build it, and brave of the Globe/Playhouse to stage this pearl of the baroque repertoire.

I still feel that we’re a little bit stand-offish about baroque productions in this country. I have already noted on this blog that  “they do things differently there” on the Continent when it comes to the baroque – witness the runaway success of Artaserse, the production garnering a firmament of stars (mainly due to its own galaxy of countertenor superstars in key roles!). It feels there as if things are taken more seriously, as if staging them is a legitimate artistic pursuit, and the end product, replete with theorbos, sackbutts, sackhose, hose and gowns, is a legitimate artistic product.

By contrast, though the UK has appetite for Historically Informed Performance, usually we get this fare in concert form at worst, and at best (eg here or here ) it seems we like to stage them with a glance askance, and a knowing look, as if to say “it’s all a bit of a laugh!” (or perhaps, at least Jonathan Kent seems to think so!).

It is rather the same with this L’Ormindo, as if the spectre of Shakespeare at his self-disparaging best haunts the Wanamaker. This is, in short, opera unafraid to take the p*ss out of itself and the genre, and yet it retains enough seriousness to balance against this levity.

Thus we have the familiar baroque opera menagerie of Fates, Love, Destiny, Music and Fortune yet here Fortune is renamed Lady Luck, Joélle Harvey sings her aria in her (actual) American accent and asks an audience member between lines “Are you on Twitter?” ; Mirinda (Rachel Kelly) jumps into a guy’s lap in the audience and gives him a smooch on the cheek, Susanne Hurrell’s Erisbe appears at one point shows us her frilly pink knickers, and Love is James Laing dangling from the ceiling dressed in a tutu.

Joélle Harvey as Lady Luck

I am the type of guy who often likes his baroque opera straight*. Would that the cast could come gliding down from the gods on a ship, or find themselves replete with feathers or in heavy whiteface L’Ormindo’s excesses are restrained by comparison, and gently self-mocking. It never goes “Full Baroque”, which I would have had no problem with.

My experience was diminished somewhat by my standing place and my view obscured slightly at times, but the two and half hours of standing flew by. Like Opera Up Close, with which the Wanamaker could be said to share a kinship (albeit on a vastly bigger budget) the small-scale of the house afforded me wonderful “close-ups”.  As above, the cast makes one feel known, seen and “performed to” rather than “performed at”.

Review proper:

And what a group of gifted performers here assembled. All the cast handled the perils of baroque ornamentation with aplomb. No mean feat, this, when it involves variously the demands of what is actually a “big ask” from a small cast. Together with the light comedy above, Rachel Kelly must seduce James Laing’s ingenue Nerilius whilst singing;  James Laing himself must (as above) dangle from the gods as love, and also escape the clutches of amorous womenfolk; Ashley Riches must douse then light candles whilst singing, as well as climb around the stage a bit; Joelle Harvey must double as both gypsy and princess, the former delivered with gloriously rhotic enunciation – exoticism in sound and manner – the latter given with native sweet charm; and Susanna Hurrell‘s Erisbe,  the “love object” of Ormindo and Amidas must carry the focus for most of the show herself, being by turns minxy, beguiling, winsome and funny, as well as dazzlingly attractive.

 © Stephen Cummiskey

Dazzlingly attractive: Susanna Hurrell as Erisbe in L’Ormindo
© Stephen Cummiskey

Ms Hurrell’s voice is pure class and perfectly at ease with the demands of Cavalli’s score (and Christopher Cowell’s equally luminous translation). Graeme Broadbent was a wonderfully sonorous King Ariadenus, and a convincing old-timer at that.  James Laing‘s falsetto/countertenor voice sounded a little strained at times, but I think this is perhaps due to being called to sing two nights in a row to cover for Rupert Enticknap who had himself been called to replace another countertenor in another show. Regardless of any judgements about his voice, his acting as Amore/Cupid more than makes up for it. I can only respect a man who allows himself to wear sparkly lip gloss and a tutu.

Resistance is futile: Rachel Kelly as Mirinda

Resistance is futile: Rachel Kelly as Mirinda

Fresh from his Hollander up the road Ed Lyon took to Amidas with relish. Broad of shoulder and of voice, Beefcake Ed (as I will now think of him) happily stripped down to his vest and had a wet t-shirt moment in Hollander, and here too he was topless for a good proportion of time, this act well-received by my friend who was there too, who said he rather resembled some guy from the Vikings TV show. Ed, if you’re reading, and ever fancy having a sabbatical from opera, I imagine there’s a fair few other avenues you could profit from, put it that way.

Ormindo himself (Samuel Boden) has a fine tenor voice with a real a real sweetness and warmth at the top. Easy to see why Erisbe fell for both boys. One shyer, yet ardent, the other strapping (and stripping). The best of both worlds, but, problematically, as two men!

Romeo and Juliet? No, Cavalli's L'Ormindo

Romeo and Juliet? No, Cavalli’s L’Ormindo, Boden and Hurrell as Ormindo and Erisbe © Stephen Cummiskey

The final duet with Ormindo and Erisbe was genuinely touching, sung as Riches’ Osman the assassin slowly moved round the stage snuffing candles, until only one remained alight. The lady in front of me seemed to Have Something In Her Eye here (or genuinely did at that point – it may have been the candlesmoke…) and there was a gorgeous blend of the two voices here in singing very finely judged indeed. Bravi.

Final mention must go to costumes by Anja Vang Kragh (and to director Kasper Holten’s decision to employ her!) Ms Vang Kragh dressed Holten’s ROH Don Giovanni, which was itself noteworthy for sumptuous costumes, statements often purposefully simple in hue and overall palette, but all gorgeously cut. No surprise thant Ms Vang Kragh worked for Galliano/ Dior. Here she has been given free reign: baroque excess an excuse to imagine bold dressing choices. It seems her sense of style has found fittingly ornate expression*. Those who know me know I am a sucker for over the top and well crafted costumes, which are in common currency in this production. I gather the programme notes have  a”Dressing Ormindo” section, but sadly I have no program. Suffice to say: opulence.

l-r: Lyon, Kelly, Hurrell, Boden

Opulence: l-r: Lyon, Kelly, Hurrell, Boden © Stephen Cummiskey

I cannot vouch for historical detail, but was pleased to note nods to indicators of period (eg small ruffs) and Harry Nicoll’s (well sung) turn as Gypsy Eryka had Psi symbols, symbols of the arcane,  Harvey’s gypsy outfit full of indicators of the exotic too: Geegaws and jewellery abounded, and even if just “costume jewellery” they sparkled and shone.

As did the score, directed from the haripschord by Christian Curnyn. My seat meant I could see each member of the Early Opera Company in the gallery at all times. There was of course tremendous concentration, but also a feling of “flow” and real joy, especially from Siobhan Armstrong (harp)  who – despite this being performance number nine I think – joined in with Nicoll’s “Wind” character blowing the lovers to ruin, and giggled at the same Wind’s ninja-like gestures and poses. Dedication from all, but brava to her, and to the lutenist/theorbist next to her, who I realised played continually. (The strings had a fair few periods of rest, but those two ladies almost constant continuo!)

It was a lovely evening, made only slightly less so by my standing seat. (-1 mark for my choice of seat! 😦   )

The Wanamaker is a jewel and can only deliver joy after joy to those lucky enough to pass through its doors. If there’s another revival of this or in fact if there is anything at all on there, go!

* mainly cause I have no sense of humour.

* but not as much as here. Please, Fates, someone, put this woman in touch with the team at Parnassus.

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